Fight Pedagogy: The Method & Practice of Teaching for the Fight

Techniques are not difficult to teach. What is extremely difficult is the ability to ensure that a student can deploy said techniques against a resisting, uncooperative opponent. The reality of the fight remains an elusive distance from the training mat. And as obvious as this may sound, just because you teach someone something doesn’t mean that they will be able to deploy it when it is needed most. This should be self evident to anyone who has been educated in the West. We teach kids loads of stuff, that never seems to materialise in the actuality of the chaos of living in the world.

When we talk about martial ability, fight pedagogy then, should probably be the most important topic on any coaches mind, and the driving force in any martial arts academy. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching. Yet, most martial arts instructors are never taught how to teach. Most students hardly question either how they are taught, rather instead following along blindly in hopes that the person teaching them is doing things right.

Entropy of Technique The Closer One Gets To Reality

One of the biggest obstacles most fight coaches will encounter is the entropy of technique to reality. In other words, it’s one thing for example demonstrating a certain counter measure to a specific fight problem — but in the actuality of the fight when that same problem arises — how closely does that series of techniques taught on the mat now resemble itself in the actuality of the fight?

As obvious as this may sound, one can find tones of examples of this failure all over the place. YouTube as usually the best place to see real world examples of this kind. The Kung Fu master who practices for decades on his techniques, only to find himself destroyed in seconds by a ‘no name brand’ mixed martial arts fighter. Guru’s who spend thousands of hours on weapon techniques, like stick fighting, claiming the importance of elaborate patterned drills as needed to build fight efficacy — only to then resort to looking like cavemen swinging a stick, in real stick on stick matches. Or the reality based martial arts self defense experts who when placed against an unpredictable, resisting opponent lose all their Jason Bourne moves.This is not only a failure of technique, but a failure of fight pedagogy.

It’s not even that all their techniques are ineffective, but rather, how they have learned to deploy them which is. The bare truth is this, if we are going to learn how to fight another human being, we need to start from the fight itself. In other words, what are we likely to encounter in those moments of fight reality?

There are few simple truths here. I’ll choose my top four to illustrate my point:

All fights are mostly unpredictable. I like everyone else, have no access to other people’s thoughts (i.e., their minds). As much as I would like it to be otherwise, long range prediction of what this person may or may not do, remains elusive.

All fights will have resistance. In other words, people will fight back. People are likely going to fight back in a way that may only loosely resemble how you trained in the academy (or even not at all). For example, think of a drunk guy throwing a jab. It’s never going to be that picture perfect jab you defend against nightly on the mat.

All fights have an intention driven by both parties. In the competitive world of combat sports, the intention is to win by how the game has been said it can be won. In the jiu-jitsu competitive space for example, the quickest way to win is through submission, if that’s not possible, strategically one can win through amassing superior point advantages over the opponent. In a real life and death situation, like in self preservation, the attacker may have the intention to do you serious bodily harm in the pursuit of what he wants, while you may want to simply survive at all costs. In other words, the attacker’s intention is to kill, while your intention is to escape.

All fight success hinge on personal disposition. Who are you as a person? Do you have natural grit, or do you easily give up? Like it or not, some people are natural born fighters, others are not. You might be utterly afraid of violence, whilst someone else was born into it and violence is how they live in the world. If you are the later, this will be something you will need to address, or better still your coach will have to — if he or she ever has the hope of helping you be in a position to deploy what you have been taught when it matters most: in a real fight.

Taking all of the above into account, teaching someone to fight, isn’t as simple as teaching a technique and then hoping a person will deploy it when necessary. The entropy of that technique is multi layered, and goes beyond just the failure of the technique itself. What leads to its failure as noted above includes unpredictability, resistance, the intention one faces from the other party versus your own intentions, which is often underpinned by your disposition. Looking it at that way, as a coach, it may be far more fruitful to begin by assessing a person’s current disposition and working from there. In psychological terms disposition is defined as a habit, a preparation, a state of readiness, or a tendency to act in a specified way. It reflects the concept of personality traits.

Let me give you an example. I am fairly confident that what I teach works. I have taught thousands of people how to deploy their fight skills against resisting, unpredictable opponents. I have seen them do it. So when I am teaching someone these processes, drills, techniques, and they are finding it difficult to deploy them against a resisting, unpredictable opponent – I know it is not the technique per-say that is failing, but rather the way I am teaching it to them that is. This person may be utterly afraid of engaging in violence. My goal then is to find a way to teach the material to them in such a way that they begin to change their dispositional fear of aggression into the confidence to fight back. If I get that right, the ‘techniques’ so to speak will take care of themselves.

How might I do this?

Everyone Has a Starting-Ability Threshold

Everyone has a starting-ability threshold. In other words, what ever I teach this person that encompasses both unpredictability and resistance — there is a point where they can to some degree get it right. Now that may mean doing it slowly, with little or no resistance in the beginning, etc. But a student learns nothing if every time they engage in what I ask them to do, but then they fall apart psychologically.

The goal is to find their current starting-ability threshold and build from there. How fast that happens isn’t as important as getting it right. As a person’s, or what we can call fight disposition grows (i.e., their ability to psychologically, emotionally etc, engage in the fight), the more they can actively troubleshoot the strategic aspects of the fight.

Said another way, if your are absolutely terrified of sparring against an uncooperative, resisting opponent in the academy, what makes you think that on the ‘street’ it will be any different? In fact, it will likely be worse. First we have to work to enable this person to manage their fear, through the experience of learning how to fight. In this sense, ho well this person can ultimately deploy their fight skills in a real fight will only happen once the dispositional aspects of themselves holding them back from doing so, is addressed.

The correct changes in fight dispositional characteristics, will then in turn affect a person’s intentions. In this sense, a person’s fight dispositional characteristics they have now developed through the experience of systematically engaging in violence, gives them the inner fortitude to take on the reality of the fight — which is as noted earlier, always unpredictable, and against an opponent who will fight back.

Intentions explain the behaviour in that individuals are seen as actors who have desires and who attempt to achieve goals that are directed by beliefs. When your dispositional characteristics change towards a specific experience, so do your beliefs about it. What previously may have seen as impossible due to fear, now becomes doable due to an inner confidence built upon the ability to successfully engage and win in the experience you once so feared.


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  1. Exactly! It is perplexing that at this day and age people are still clinging to the notion of superior techniques, secret moves etc. In an ideal world it would have been clear by now that the ability stems from training methodology and proper instruction much more so than from the particular technical contents. After all, once there is a solid methodology and pedagy in place, it will dictate the technical development.